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Irish Gaelic: To Dialect or not to Dialect?

Every now and then, the Irish speaking/teaching/learning world seems to explode over the issue of dialect.

It’s a subject that people can get pretty passionate about, and one that can be pretty intimidating to new learners, especially when purists imply (or say outright) that, if you’re not speaking a traditional dialect, you’re not speaking “true Irish.”

First, some background

Yes, it’s true. There are different dialects of Irish. Three main dialects (Munster, Connacht, Ulster) and a laundry list of sub-dialects.

If this seems like a daunting thought, it really shouldn’t. These are dialects, not different languages. If you learn one, you can understand (and be understood by) speakers of another, especially if you make a habit of listening to natural, spoken, Irish on a regular basis while you’re learning.

We talk a bit more about this situation (and why it shouldn’t worry you as a learner) in these posts (links will open in a new window):

The Irish Language Has Dialects. Here’s Why It Won’t Stop You

Irish Dialects

Think You Don’t Know Dialects?

Bitesize members also have access to a lesson on dialects: A Word About Dialects.

I guess you can tell, it’s an issue a lot of people ask about!

A strange fixation

Why the fixation on Irish dialects? Every language has dialects. As an American who grew up on the west coast, I speak English differently from my friends in New York, North Carolina, London, and Galway.

Most of the time we don’t even think about it, other than to chuckle, now and then, about the differences (the phrase “separated by a common language” comes up fairly frequently). Sometimes I have to remind myself that what I mean when I say “I’m wearing a jumper” is very different from what my English friends might envision.

(Just in case you’re not familiar with the terms, American “jumper” = English “pinafore dress.” English “jumper” = American “sweater.” The same distinction exists in Ireland.)

Searching for common ground

What distinguishes Irish is that, unlike other modern languages, it never developed a naturally agreed upon “middle dialect.”

Language is about communication. In the natural course of a language’s development, when areas in which different dialects are spoken come together, a sort of “middle dialect” grows up along the borders, where people interact.

A natural feature of communication


Our ears are attuned to the subtleties of language, and, when we encounter people who speak differently than we do, there is a natural tendency to adapt our own speech to theirs, and vice versa.

If you’ve ever spent a long time in a region with a dialect different from your own, only to return to your home region and hear people exclaim that you’ve acquired an “accent,” you’ve experienced this phenomenon first-hand.

And chances are, you’ve picked up more than an accent. You’ve almost certainly picked up regional expressions as well (it’s been 14 years since I moved back to California from North Carolina, and I still say “y’all”!).

On a national scale


As regions unite to become a nation, something of a national “middle dialect” tends to begin to develop. This is especially true in our modern world, where ease of travel, as well as such modern modes of communication as television, radio, and the internet, make communication between far flung regions a daily necessity.

Chances are, if you’ve ever studied one of the more mainstream languages, you learned one of these “middle dialects,” at least initially.

Language, interrupted


In the case of Irish, unfortunately, this natural progression didn’t happen — at least not on a national scale.

There are various reasons for this, but the biggest culprit was almost certainly the devastating famine known in Ireland as An Gorta Mór: The Great Hunger.

At a time when other nations were beginning to move toward modernization, Ireland, already occupied by a foreign power, lost around 1 million people, most of them Irish speakers, to starvation and disease. Another million escaped death by emmigrating. Others migrated to the cities, where speaking Irish was no advantage.

By the time the famine was over, Irish was, for the first time, no longer a majority language in Ireland. Further, the language came to be isolated in Gaeltachts (Irish-speaking regions) that were often separated from each other by the rapidly growing Galltacht (English-speaking region).

This made the likelihood of the existing dialects coming together naturally to form a “middle dialect” much more remote than might have been otherwise.

So what’s a poor learner to do?

So this brings us back to the question that arises just about every time someone sets out to learn Irish: “Which dialect should I learn?”

If you’re a follower of this blog, if you’ve followed the links above, or if you’re a Bitesize member, you already know our answer to that question, which is, quite simply “don’t worry about it. Just learn Irish, and learn it well. The rest will follow.”

If you have a personal or family connection to a particular region of Ireland and want to focus on that dialect, that’s just fine too. But you shouldn’t let that stop you from getting started on learning the basics, even if it takes you a while to find resources for your chosen dialect.

Remember, these are dialects, not different languages! You can start off learning a particular dialect, or, as most learners do, a mixture of dialects, and specialize later, if that’s what you want.

For a new learner, this is such a non-issue, I’m often shocked at just how often it comes up.

Dialect purists


I think part of the problem may be that some people out there are what I call “dialect purists.” And sometimes they can go quite a bit overboard.

I’ve heard people say that you’re not speaking “authentic Irish” if you’re not speaking one of the traditional dialects. To that, I can only say “hogwash” (actually, I can think of a few other things I might say, but if I said them you might not let your kids read my blogs anymore!).

Don’t get me wrong: I see great value in preserving the traditional dialects. They give the language incredible richness, as well as a link to its past. And, of course, they represent the day-to-day speech of the people of the Gaeltacht!

I also think it’s vitally important for learners of the language to work on reproducing the basic sounds of the language correctly, as well as to practice listening to speakers from all over Ireland, so that they will understand, and be understood by, native speakers of all dialects.

This takes some practice, and it’s a step that some learners, admittedly, like to sidestep. You don’t have to be perfect, and you shouldn’t let concerns about pronunciation keep you from speaking, but you do always want to be working toward good pronunciation by listening to and emulating good speakers.

Looking to the future

The dialects are a rich link to the Irish language’s past, but if we insist on keeping the language enshrined in the Gaeltacht, a virtual museum piece, I’m afraid it won’t have much of a future.

If Irish is to recover from the devastation of the famine, people outside of the Gaeltacht need to be speaking it, using it, and making it their own.

And yes…this will mean people speaking a mixture of dialects. It will also mean children being brought up in the language by parents who are not themselves native speakers and being educated in schools by Irish speakers from regions other than their own. This is really the only way the language can grow toward that “middle dialect.”

Not an excuse

This should not, of course, be taken as an excuse for learning poor Irish. I’ve heard learners say things like “it’s OK if I pronounce “loch” as “lock”…that’s just my accent.” I’ve heard people jam Irish words together using English syntax and justifying it as “growing the language by giving it new expressions.”

Sorry folks…THAT’S not OK. Learners should, as much as possible, adapt their accent to the language, not vice versa. It’s a process, and you’re not going to start out saying everything correctly (and, if you’re an adult learner, you will almost certainly always have an accent), but it’s a goal you should always be striving toward.

And while new expressions will most certainly arise (and should!) — and, sadly, will also almost certainly include some Béarlachas (Anglicization) — that shouldn’t be an excuse for not knowing how to construct an Irish sentence correctly. As a wise person once said, “you have to know the rules to break ’em.”

Summing it all up

I said it above, and I’ll say it again: Don’t obsess about dialects. Just learn Irish. Learn it as well as you can. Use it whenever you can, even if it’s far from perfect.

Take every opportunity to listen to native speakers from different regions, and always strive to improve.

If all of us who love this beautiful, ancient, and — thank God! — still living language will only do that, without letting ourselves get sucked into the “dialect war,” I think Irish has the potential to have a very bright future indeed.

Did you find this post interesting?

Where do you stand on the issue of dialects in Irish? Let us know your thoughts below!

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13 thoughts on “Irish Gaelic: To Dialect or not to Dialect?”

  1. Ann Margaret Desmond’ Keating Rybka

    Such an interesting point about there being no middle language. I find the Irish language similar to the Hawaiian language – an oral tradition that could not be grasped by cultures that had a written language. So much to learn from the past to bring forward into a helpful and hopeful future that honors our ancestors, their struggles and happy and memorable moments too. Just hearing our native language give me goosebumps.

  2. There is no place in the U.S. in which Irish is spoken as a daily language. There are, certainly, many learners of Irish in the U.S.

    Not quite sure where you were going with this, Roel. My comments had nothing to do with Irish as it may or may not be spoken in the U.S.

    In any case, it’s best to use the term “Irish” or “Irish Gaelic” when speaking English. When you use “Gaelic” by itself, it’s presumed to be the language of Scotland.

  3. What Audrey Nickel might have ment is that in some parts of the US Gaelic is also spoken. These most likely don’t correspond to one of the existing dialects on Ireland but have changed due to the circumstances in their new environment.

    In my opinion, if you don’t speak an Irish dialect from Ireland, but one from America, you can speak Irish, as someone who learns the English language with a dialect from Australia or the USA can also be considered speaking English.

  4. Ailín Ó Suilleabháin

    “I’ve heard people say that you’re not speaking “authentic Irish” if you’re not speaking one of the traditional dialects. To that, I can only say “hogwash” (actually, I can think of a few other things I might say, but if I said them you might not let your kids read my blogs anymore!).”

    What is utter hogwash is NOT speaking one of the tradtional dialects. Irish is not some sort of à la carte menu where as a learner you can choose whatever tickles your fancy. The dialects ARE the natural spoken form of the language. Anyone who does not focus on a single dialect and studies that well will never speak Irish naturally; they will end up with a nowhere language, spoken natively by nobody.

    Also, the spoken dialects are much more than just differences in vocabulary. There are differences in phonology, in morphology and in syntax. The differences are small but important.

    You assume that anyone who focuses on a single dialect is some sort of crackpot. I’m passionate about West Munster Irish but that in no way means that I can denigrate or belittle any other dialect of Irish. I speak my Irish with native speakers from Conamara and Donegal with no problems at all understanding them or they understanding me. I often discuss dialect differences with a colleague from Conamara; there’s never any sense of “my dialect is better than yours” which would be childish and linguistically meaningless anyway.

    You ignore the fact that English too once had its dialects, as different or even more different than Irish dialects are from each other. England had an English speaking élite and an English speaking state school system which resulted in the dialects vanishing and today England is left with distinctive regional accents and only minor differences in vocabulary; Standard English won the war against English dialects a long time ago. US English and British English and Irish English are all broadly similar because English hasn’t been spoken all that long in the US or Ireland. Today, neither of these countries is isolated from the others and so real English dialects have emerged in either Ireland or America.

    1. No one said anything about anyone being a “crackpot,” Ailín. As you can tell from this post, I’m of the school that thinks that Irish’s survival as a living language depends on it being spoken by a broader demographic…and I DON’T think it’s necessary to stick to one particular dialect. You clearly disagree, and that’s fine. It takes all kinds to make a world.

  5. Gearóid Ó hAnnaidh

    Even before the Great Famine, Irish had not developed naturally, following the “Flight of the Earls”,
    because English became the default language for the Judicial system, Commerce & Administration.
    Also, when the national school system was first set up, Irish was not taught. Children were sometimes punished for speaking Irish rather than English.

    Le meas,

    1. Very true, Gearóid. I do think, though, that the Famine was the biggest blow, without which the language would have recovered to a much greater extent than it has.

  6. Lillis…true. But there’s a difference between a more or less “common” or “central” dialect and a standardized dialect. The first is a natural inclination toward common ground, and that DOES happen naturally (one example might be Mayo Irish, which has elements of both Connacht and Ulster).

    Standardization as something imposed by a government is a whole different ballgame. Just look at An Caighdeán! A dialect nobody speaks!

  7. It’s a mistake to think that languages develop standardised dialects naturally. A great deal of state investment is expended in their dissemination and enforcement. In the case of Ireland, that effort was put into standard English, which most Irish people do not speak.